Monday, September 17, 2007

Sunday at the Brooklyn Book Festival: Panel on "Why Book Reviews Matter"

This post appeared on Richard Grayson's MySpace Blog on Monday, September 17, 2007:

Sunday at the Brooklyn Book Festival: Why Book Reviews Matter

The last of four panels in the National Book Critics Circle's event "The Age of Infinite Margins: Book Critics Face the 21st Century," took place yesterday at the Brooklyn Book Festival. At 1 p.m. over a hundred people gathered at the Brooklyn Historical Society to attend the panel, "Why Book Reviews Matter: How We Decide What to Read (Next)."

Deborah Schwartz, the president of the Brooklyn Historical Society, began by welcoming us to their building. I've been there a number of times, and they always seem to have great exhibits of photos and other stuff from the old days, most of which I was around to see (trolleys, Ebbets Field, pterodactyls over Flatbush, etc.).

Deborah then introduced Jane Ciabattari, NBCC board member, short story writer, book critic and presence on the NBCC blog Critical Mass, today's moderator, who in turn introduced the four panelists:

Colin Harrison, author of five novels and vice president and senior editor at Scribner's, a resident of Brooklyn;

Kathryn Harrison, author of novels as well as a memoir, a biography and an essay collection, also a Brooklyn resident (you figure it out);

John Reed, novelist and books editor of The Brooklyn Rail (his residence was left unspecified); and

Harvey Shapiro, poet, former editor of The New York Times Book Review, a resident of Brooklyn Heights for 50 years.

(Full disclosure: When my first book was published in 1979, I placed a copy with a cordial note on the doorstep of Mr. Shapiro's brownstone. This friendly gesture did not get that book reviewed in the New York Times Book Review, but Mr. Shapiro did allow a mildly favorable review of my third book to appear in the NYTBR in August 1983; three weeks later he was replaced as editor by Mitchel Levitas).

Jane's first question for the panel: How do they decide what to read next?

Colin said that as an editor at a major publishing house, a river of paper comes to his desk every day. If the book is from an agent or an editor that he knows or on a topic that interests him, it has a better chance of getting his attention. Because he reads so many manuscripts, he has very little time to read for fun – and when he does so, it's usually as a "vacation" from his usual fare: a novel from the 1950s or a strange book of nonfiction.

The truth is, Colin said, he doesn't read based on book reviews. He's currently reading a Peter Blauner thriller set in New York City.

Kathryn said the last novel she read had been recommended by a student. Most books she reads are recommended by her friends, though she does look through The New York Times Book Review and the daily reviews in The New York Times.

Kathryn said there are certain writers she follows and will read all of their books. She gets a lot of books, though not as many as Colin. A lot of her reading is research for her own books. For fun, she reads Victorian novels such as those by Dickens or Madame Bovary (which she re-reads every year).

Colin interrupted to say that she reads books about serial murders, and Kathryn said that yes, she likes true crime books.

John said he finds books a lot of different ways: review copies to The Brooklyn Rail, book reviews he reads, websites he looks at, recommendations from friends. At the book festival today he'd already bought "too many books." He especially looks for books published by presses that he respects. For research, he reads strange stuff, like books on 1850s pottery. For fun, he reads things like graphic novels.

John said he wants to have The Brooklyn Rail review books early, so he relies a lot on publishers' catalogs. While a lot of review copies come to the Rail offices, he's not physically there and so doesn't see them all. Finally, reviewers sometimes come to him with books they are interested in reading.

Harvey said that there are so many books in his apartment that he has never read that he always has a huge pile of books to get to. He doesn't really use reviews as a consumer guide; rather, he listens to friends. However, he is affected by reviews – such as when everyone suddenly "discovers" a writer like Cormac McCarthy.

Harvey also follows specific reviewers like Louis Menand and Diane Johnson: "I'll read whatever they're reviewing." He also likes Adam Kirsch's reviews in The New York Sun and Charles Simic's poetry reviews in The New York Review of Books. Publications he reads include The New York Times Book Review, New York Review of Books, Times Literary Supplement, Brooklyn Rail and the newsletter of the St. Marks Poetry Project, which is important for reviews of poetry books.

Jane then asked the panel how they want word to get out about the new books they themselves have coming out and what the ideal in terms of book reviews would look like.

Harvey said that it is imperative that advance copies get to the following periodicals well in advance: Publishers Weekly, Library Journal and Booklist (the latter is especially important for poetry, since a good review will create library sales).

Review outlets that help sell books, Harvey said, are The New York Review of Books, New York Times Book Review, Talisman, literary magazines, The Boston Globe, Los Angeles Times Book Review (although he got an unfortunate review there) and Boston Review.

John agreed with Harvey's response but said that even if you get a lot of reviews, a lot of other things have to happen to achieve maximum sales. He noted that publishers often mess up when it comes to advance review copies; they have to be in six months in advance. Too many people chase reviews when it's too late, like two months after publication.

John said it's necessary for books to go after very specific markets and that it's important for authors to use social networking sites, blogs, and other outlets besides the traditional print review publications.

Jane mentioned the posts about the NBCC campaign to save newspaper book reviews on its Critical Mass blog. A Harper Perennial editor said on the blog that authors definitely need a MySpace page. Another site the editor mentioned is Powells Books, which has a review of the day and with whom Harper Perennial partnered to make a film about the novel On Chesil Beach.

Jane asked Kathryn if things are done differently to get reviews and publicity for her fiction and nonfiction books. Kathryn said that it's hard to address the difference between two, that there's not much crossover in terms of readers.

Kathryn said that every book is like reinventing the wheel, even if they are from the same author; it's always like starting over unless you become one of those rare "brand names" like Stephen King. Selling books is not like selling toothpaste, as publishers say, in that books are not necessities.

Kathryn's preference is to be completely involved in something else during the publicity process; in some ways it helps to let go of a book already published, if not thinking about it as a failure before the fact.

Jane asked her about blog tours, about guest-hosting on blogs – something authors are beginning to do; Kathryn said she would certainly do that, as she would anything helpful for her books. She has a website and will probably get a MySpace page, though she called herself "an Amazon virgin" who has never checked her sales rankings or the reviews of her books by readers there.

Colin said that word of mouth is the best way to sell books. As an editor, his perspective is that the publishing company will work hard to get authors reviews. Unfortunately, due to factors beyond their control, publishers do something send out galleys late.

As reviews come in, things happen to books; sometimes a book you had high hopes for garners poor reviews that can be devastating to authors. As an editor, Colin said, he tells his authors that this is just the immediate response but the reviews are not everything in terms of success.

Right now, Colin said, there really isn't the reviewing culture that existed in the past. While professional critics are often very good, a number of book reviews today are done by occasional reviewers who freelance and these reviews are not always the best; sometimes it's easy to tell that the reviewer hasn't really read the book but based his review on the press materials.

Colin said the good reviews are sometimes not as intelligent as bad reviews because lazy reviewers who don't read carefully are loath to expose their failings with a bad review and so indulge in mindless praise.

Sometimes, Colin went on, a single review can have an electrifying effect that creates a chain of critical awareness and set the perception of the book. And some books get reviewed very well, but they don't sell many copies anyway. Few newspapers do daily reviews anymore.

Colin mentioned a book he edited, the first novel by Anthony Swofford, whose memoir Jarhead sold well after magnificent reviews. The novel got a "murderous" review in The New York Times Book Review, and although that was really the only poor review the book got, it set the perception for the novel, much to the detriment of its sales figures.

Colin repeated what others said, that there's a very short period of time in which responses to a book come in and actually matter; most books are in the marketplace of ideas for only a brief moment. A lack of reviews can be very discouraging to writers.

With newspaper reviews in decline, outlets like The Village Voice's Voice Literary Supplement gone, things are much harder, but Colin hopes were merely in a pause in the critical culture; he expects more reviews from newspapers will migrate from the print edition to the online one. There are some wonderful literary blogs that do a good job; he mentioned Jessa Crispin's Bookslut, Maud Newton and Lizzie Skurnick's The Old Hag, among others.

John took up the question and said his magazine likes to champion underdogs, so he particularly looks at small presses, of which there are many excellent ones that bring out books that might otherwise slip through the cracks. The Brooklyn Rail has a political bent and that affects its book coverage. They try to review books that they can help, which is why they rarely review books long after publication, except to right what he feels is an unjustified neglect by other review outlets.

John said a lot of an author's best coverage comes off the book pages, where the author can better define and control the coverage to her advantage.

Again, John mentioned social networking sites like MySpace, saying writers take to them like a duck takes to water. Authors who are afraid of these sites must dive in, because they will inevitably become more important.

Harvey began by saying that in his lifetime, middlebrow culture has completely disappeared. At one time magazines like Life, Time and Newsweek would feature authors on their covers because books were an important part of American novel.

[My intrusion: As a kid in the 1960s, I used to collect autographed Time covers, and in my collection are those of a number of novelists, such as John Updike, who made Time's cover when Couples came out. Updike signed it, "I'm glad you liked Irene," referring to the character of Irene Saltz, whom I told him I thought was the most well-drawn.]

Harvey said book culture receded in importance as the boundaries broke down between highbrow and lowbrow culture, with middlebrow culture completely disappearing as postmodernism reigned. This was in many ways a good thing, but it ended mainstream coverage of literary works in the mass media.

Today, because of financial problems unrelated to books and book culture, newspapers are cutting back reviews. To some degree, Harvey said, editorial space is determined by the amount of advertising in a section.

When he was editor of The New York Times Book Review, a company vice president once told him that it was okay for the section to lose two million dollars a year but if it lost three million, they'd be in trouble. No one ever gave him a balance sheet although at one point an executive told him the section was actually running int the black.

Harvey said that under him, the section reviewed about 6% of reviewable books, not including very specialized titles for a narrow audience. At one time he wanted to eliminate all art and graphics to make more room for book reviews, but of course that never happened. He thought the extra space could be given over to more review content.

The sad truth, Harvey said, is that book publishers don't advertise much. The inability to financially support itself is why The Los Angeles Times Book Review ceased to exist as a separate section as was folded into an insert in the Arts section of the paper.

Interestingly, Harvey said The New York Times Book Review began as part of the Arts section of the paper and then he mused, "Who knows, it may eventually go back to that."

Jane said the panel was running out of time and she wanted to mention some other kinds of publicity of books: Oprah Winfrey and her book club on her television show, for example, really did bring mainstream attention to a literary novelist like Cormac McCarthy when Oprah selected The Road.

After asking if anyone in the audience relied on The Colbert Report as a source of information about books they might read (no one did, apparently), Jane asked the audience members what other sources they did get information about books from.

Here are some responses people called out: page one of The Wall Street Journal, Booklist, Publishers Weekly, Kirkus Reviews, The Leonard Lopate Show and The Brian Lehrer Show on public radio station WNYC, critic James Wood (now at The New Yorker),, Rain Taxi, American Book Review (particularly important for poetry),, reviews (John Reed said Amazon has been culling and deleting some reviews and reminded everyone that books are reviewed there by people who also review soap) and various literary blogs.

The Brooklyn Book Festival people had another event scheduled at 2 p.m., so Jane thanked the panelists and the audience and wrapped up an interesting series of panels from the National Book Critics Circle.

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